With New Coach, Mystics Turn It Around

Nakia Sanford, left, and the Mystics shot 57.6 percent in the first half. (AP Photo/Luis M. Alvarez)
Nakia Sanford, left, and the Mystics shot 57.6 percent in the first half. (AP Photo/Luis M. Alvarez) (AP )
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By Katie Carrera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 21, 2008

Maybe it was the coaching change. Maybe it was the embarrassment they felt after their two worst losses of the season. Maybe it was both. But yesterday afternoon and for the first time this season, the Washington Mystics played like a quality team. Not just for one quarter, or even one half, but for an entire game.

After trudging around the court for two games, Washington ran the floor and forced the Seattle Storm to try to keep up. Washington shot over 50 percent in every quarter and applied itself on defense.

This team looked nothing like the mistake-prone Mystics that have searched for consistency all year. And in their first game since the firing of Coach Tree Rollins, they ended Seattle's seven-game winning streak with an 89-57 victory -- Washington's largest margin of victory this season and second best all-time -- yesterday at Verizon Center.

"It's personal pride," forward Taj McWilliams-Franklin said. "We lost by 40 [to Detroit]. I know for me personally, it was playing with nothing to lose. . . . I think [team majority owner Sheila] Johnson could have coached us and we would have responded. You get so far down and you get so low that you can only go up. We're at the position now where there's nothing left for us underneath there, so we have to peek up and start moving toward the light."

Washington (9-14) came out with an intensity that Seattle (15-8) couldn't hope to match or protect against. The Mystics didn't play with a set offensive plan, guard Alana Beard said, other than to push toward the basket at all costs. And in her first game as interim head coach, Jessie Kenlaw made sure they remembered that message, barking out the command to "push it forward" each time a player hesitated or thought about pulling up.

The Mystics' whirling dervish of an offense took off in unpredictable directions, creating easy opportunities for forward Monique Currie under the rim as often as it resulted in picture-perfect three-pointers for point guard Nikki Blue, who went 3 for 3 behind the arc for her nine points, and shots for McWilliams-Franklin, who scored 18 of her game-leading 22 points (10 for 15) in the first half.

Beard, whose scoring woes continued with nine points on 4-of-15 shooting, tied a career high with nine assists -- all in the first half as Washington piled up its largest-ever halftime lead, 48-25. The team that couldn't complete passes from two feet away two days ago had 16 assists, only four turnovers and shot 57.6 percent before halftime.

The Mystics defense kept up with the offensive barrage. They held the Storm, the second-best team in the Western Conference, to eight points in the second quarter -- its lowest single quarter total this year -- and all but knocked Seattle out of the game after 20 minutes.

Granted, the Storm was without center Lauren Jackson, the reigning league most valuable player who missed her second game to train with the Australian national team for the Beijing Olympics, but Seattle Coach Brian Agler said her presence wouldn't have mattered. By the middle of the third quarter, Agler sat all of his all-star caliber starters -- Sue Bird, Sheryl Swoopes and Yolanda Griffith -- in a vain attempt to find a working system.

Kenlaw hesitated to take any significant credit for the win or the drastic turnaround from the play that had the Mystics go 2-5 in July coming into yesterday's game.

"I don't care who's coaching, when you play hard you're going to get better results," Kenlaw said, adding that she hasn't thought about how long she'll remain head coach. "I don't know anything about the interim. All I know is I haven't even had a chance to think about anything but this game today. This happened yesterday. They asked me to step in and I did. That's all I did."

Beard was not reluctant to stand behind Kenlaw in her first game as head coach after eight years of being a WNBA assistant.

"I think any time a team is faced with adversity you have two ways to go and we chose the way out," Beard said. "But Jessie's a fiery coach. When she does her pregame speeches I'm ready to run through a wall for her."

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